COVID-19 and the Future of the American City

City dwellers across the country are seeing the places they live and the things they took for granted upended, and may change their behavior, and the American City, as a result.

Stay at home orders, closures of public space, work from home orders, etc. have changed the way that we all look at shared space. Collaboration, gathering, and density, which were viewed by city planners and sociologists as positive outcomes, are now tinted with a different brush. The threats of viral outbreak coupled with worldwide terror activities have redefined the virtue of public space.

From the agora in ancient Greece, democracy and the free exchange of ideas has been associated with the public square. Over time that public square evolved from being provided by the state, to occupying a more differentiated space. Office lobbies, malls, coffee shops, and restaurants have become our public square. In these places, we engage with others and practice social norms.

In order to access better public spaces, people have been moving to urban centers. However, with precautions related to COVID-19, the public spaces and jobs that many choose to live near have closed.

Socially Distant park goers at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (NY Times)

What is a city without public space?

By definition a city is simply a place where a large number of people live closely. The municipal structure, zoning, parks, and public transport are simply modern byproducts of that core idea. However, without the ability to experience those around us, interact, exchange ideas, and work together, the virtues of living closely disappear.

Unfortunately living in densely packed areas at the current moment is associated with liability and overvalue. The liability of an increased threat of contracting coronavirus due to proximity; And the overvalue of your investment in a home, as you are no longer able to access those services to which you pay a premium to live near.

However, look closer and you can still find the efficiencies and hopes of a city flicker. The nightly balcony dance parties and applause for first responders. The well stocked grocery and premium food delivery services. Access to better medical care and government services. Some of the comforts of a city still exist, however they have been diluted. The magic and romance of city life is not present.

LA traffic has disappeared amid a statewide stay at home order.

The Great Divide

Although every state in the US has over 300 coronavirus cases, the reaction across the country is quite varied. In South Carolina people are still going to work, while in San Francisco they have been living under a stay at home order for over a month. While many states have stay at home orders, they appear to be more strictly followed in the denser parts of the city while in the suburbs midday traffic can still be found.

The urban-rural divide is playing out in our response to the coronavirus, except it is the urban areas that are suffering the most. This is counter to the general trend that has caused people to move to the cities in droves.

Many jobs (~30%) have demonstrated that they can be done from home. These jobs are usually higher paying, white collar jobs, while blue collar, primarily lower paying jobs must be done in person. Those who have the privilege to work from home may see city life as an unnecessary burden, and choose to move. Those who do not have that privilege will remain, lowering the demand, and potentially the cost of living.

The Changing Streetscape

The crisis is going to hit small businesses hardest who do not have reserves to keep them open. Surveys show that only 30% of small businesses have the reserves to last them through a 4 month shutdown. Larger companies have better access to capital and reserves, and will be in a good position after the crisis subsides.

Many mom and pop dining establishments will also be forced to go out of business, paving the way for more national chain brands. Many big box and retail stores, which were already showing steady decline, will be forced to fold or scale back. As this happens, the specialty dining and retail experiences that are associated with big city life may begin to mirror the national chains of suburban strip malls.

If cities become less desirable places to live for wealthier workers, they could move out to the suburbs for more affordable, spacious living, similar to the White Flight of the last century. While this may not happen evenly across metro areas, it is a potential reshuffling of the norms and trends that we have seen build up.

Proximity and Value

While this may seem like a doomsday piece on the death of the American City it is not. It is simply stating a potential reshuffling. A change in norms and trends that we have seen over the past 2 decades. It may not reverse them, but it will damper them. Some of that dampering will stem the tide of gentrification and keep parts of the city affordable. Some of that will limit city budgets, shutter small businesses, and slow new construction.

This will be felt differently across the US. Migration by young families out of New York City will increase, while it may not affect those in Denver. New tele-workers in San Francisco may choose to buy their first home, feeling more comfortable moving away from the city.

We don’t know how many businesses will close or how long the lockdowns will last, or even how many there will be. But it will, and already has affected the way we look at the places we live. Millions of people after 3-4 months of restrictive lockdowns are not going to rush back to business as usual. That simple fact alone means something, and the depth of those perceptions will decide how much this may change the American landscape.

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